By Morris Phillips
SAN FRANCISCO — Kevin Johnson and his sidekick, Dave Butler didn’t win at USF. They came to the Hilltop as seniors in December 1986 and suffered an agonizing, two-point loss that had Lou Campanelli seething.
Geno Carlisle, Sean Marks, Sean Lampley and Francisco (Cisco) Elson made the trip across the Bay as a formidable quartet in 1997. They lost to the Dons by double-digits.
And on Wednesday, Matt Bradley, Paris Austin, hustling Andre Kelly and the rest of the 2019 Bears couldn’t get past an impressive USF squad either. Their defense was way too spotty in a 76-64 defeat that had coach Mark Fox reinforcing important lessons afterwards to his young squad.
The unifying theme for Cal across a 34-year stretch of a memorable, Bay Area basketball rivalry?
Stay engaged, things could turn around before this season ends.
The ’86-87 Bears won at powerhouse Arizona late in that season, and went on to the NIT. The ’97-98 Bears almost knocked off Top Ten opponents Arizona and Stanford after losing to USF, and survived a season orphaned from the renovated Haas Pavilion at 12-15, good enough for fifth in Pac-10.
The next season, Carlisle, Lampley and Elson returned and led Cal to a 22-win season and an NIT Championship.
This season’s Bears probably aren’t headed to the NIT, or even an upper-half finish in the Pac-12, but the potential for them to improve is immense. The blunt Fox has the first–and last–words on his team’s ascendancy process.
“I thought it was poor,” Fox said, when asked if he thought the Bears’ defense against USF was inconsistent. “We finished the first half with about 10 minutes of good defense and that was about all that we played. Because in the second half our defense was nowhere near to the level it needs to be to beat a good basketball team.”
The Bears suffered the slow, offensive start they could not afford, falling behind 16-4 nine minutes in while missing their first, seven shot attempts. But as Fox noted, the Bears defense steadied at that point, and the offense made an appearance. That allowed Cal to climb within 32-29 at the break.
While USF and Cal are both starting over with first-year coaches, the Dons hold a sizeable edge in continuity and experience with former assistant Todd Golden assuming head coaching duties from the departed Kyle Smith, who took the Washington State job. Veteran leadership from seniors Jimbo Lull, Jordan Ratinho and junior Charles Mindlend sets the Dons apart from Cal as well. Winning easily at Haas Pavilion last season (79-60) provided USF the confidence they needed to impose their will on the Bears on Wednesday.
All of those factors surfaced to start the second half, as USF seized control.
Jamaree Bouyea canned a 3-pointer to increase the Dons lead to 12, 55-43 with 12:05 remaining. In that opening stretch of the half, the Bears were slow to get to USF shooters while Lull started to impose his will in the paint, with inexperienced Lars Thiemann as his primary defender.
Lull led USF with 20 points, eight rebounds. Golden lit up when talking about the 7’0″ center’s improvement over his time with USF.
“Where he’s really grown is he’s done a phenomenal job managing the double team. Everybody we faced to this point in the season at some point in the game has run a double team at him, and they’re running it from the baseline, they’re running it from the nail, and after that first couple of possessions where he was a little out of sorts, he did a phenomenal job handling it the rest of the night. It either led to points for him or kickout threes for other guys.”
“We were okay with him getting two point shots,” Fox said of Lull, also referencing the damage inflicted by the big man’s ability to facilitate offense for his teammates.
The Dons would lead by as much as 16 points twice in the second half. The Bears did some nice things offensively during the stretch, but also committed some damaging turnovers. On both ends of the floor, they failed to find any consistency.
“We’re learning how to compete,” Fox said.
The Bears (5-3) were led by Kareem South with 20 points. Matt Bradley added 11, but only two of those came in the game’s final 30 minutes. Freshman starter Joel Brown had an especially rough night directing the offense. His gaffes landed him on the bench for stretches.
Cal played for the first time this season in a true road game, and had to recover to reach 42 percent shooting from the field. They acquitted themselves well at the free throw line making 18 of 25, but missed 10 of their 14 3-point attempts. The Dons made 12 threes, and showed little fatigue despite suffering a four-point loss to Arizona State just 24 hours earlier.
“You just have to bring it,” South said. “That’s the mentality you have to have on the road.”
The Bears continue their Bay Area tour with a visit to Santa Clara on Saturday at 2 pm.